Even the ‘ordinary’ can promote human rights

“When lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.” Elie Wiesel

I write this after hearing of the death of Elie Wiesel, author, educator and activist, whose books — especially “Night” and “Memoirs: All Rivers Run to the Sea” — were a great influence on my own social consciousness. Nothing I write can possibly do justice to his talent and his human rights work, but I want to highlight the interfaith leadership he exhibited.

Wiesel took a path that not everyone could, becoming the human face of the Holocaust, using his life story to give voice to those who did not live to speak. All faith groups have leaders who can open up such channels of understanding, and who can uplift concern for the world outside their own religions, just as Wiesel did. Desmond Tutu once said, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.” The Dalai Lama stated, “Each of us must learn to work not just for oneself, one’s own family or one’s nation, but for the benefit of all humankind.” Lao Tzu wrote, “Treat those who are good with goodness and also those who are not good with goodness. Thus goodness is attained.” And Azizah al-Hibri wrote, “Eschewing oppressive hierarchies forces us to take each other seriously. We must believe in human rights.”

In case you are thinking, “But I am not any of these people. What can I do?” the good news is there is a lot that “ordinary” people can do to promote human rights and interfaith understanding. One role in our communities is to use our personal histories to engage the public; but then move beyond the personal: Uphold and advocate for each other.

In my own life, I have chosen to move into a number of leadership positions. It is sometimes stressful, but it has given me the opportunity to reach out to varied groups of people and to stretch myself beyond what I thought I could do and give. My faith is a sustaining force as is the support of my family and friends.

We can educate ourselves by reading books such as “My Neighbor’s Faith: Stories of Interreligous Encounters, Growth and Transformation,” Peace, Rose & Mabley, eds. And the Interfaith Leadership Institute, for example, is having a conference Aug. 5-7 in Chicago, which will bring together undergraduate students from across the nation to educate and empower each other.

Locally, there are activities of Interfaith Initiative Centre County, which for the past several years has created events and settings in which those of many faiths can build friendship and strong community, and live the principles that the above leaders describe. (People without religious faith, who believe in goodness and in caring for their neighbors are also welcome.)

Above all, you and I and each of us can speak out against bigotry wherever we see it.

Michele Hamilton is a member of IICC and St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. She works at the Centre County Women’s Resource Center and is the president of PA National Organization for Women. She works for social justice in Centre County and beyond. For more information on local interfaith activities, email InterfaithInitiative CC@hotmail.com